National Association of Broadcasters President David Rehr today announced his decision to leave the Association, leaving the NAB without a leader at a time when the Association is facing an incredible number of challenges in Washington. One can only hope that the NAB acts quickly to replace Rehr with someone prepared to aggressively address the needs of an industry hobbled by the current economic climate, and challenged by regulatory issues that could further undermine the ability of radio and television operators to compete in today’s media marketplace. The potential broadcast performance royalty, which could require that radio operators pay musicians and record labels for the rights to play their music on the air, is but one of a number of fundamental challenges that need to be addressed very shortly by broadcaster’s representatives in Washington – perhaps in the next week or two when the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee may take up the "performance tax" issue (as the NAB has called it in their arguments on Capitol Hill).
What else will a new NAB President have to contend with? In addition to the performance royalty, there seems to be a perception in many quarters that broadcasting is no longer the special medium that it once was that demands regulatory deference because of the public interest service that it provides. Because of the lessening of some of Washington’s regard for broadcasters, there are many issues now before the FCC, Congress, the courts, and other agencies in Washington – all of which could have a serious impact on broadcasters – including:
- The final days of the DTV transition
- The FCC’s implementation of their White Areas order allowing wireless users to use parts of the TV spectrum – and the appeals and other attempts to overturn or modify that decision
- The reauthorization of SHVERA, to continue to allow satellite companies to beam local television signals into local markets – where parties are raising all sorts of extraneous issues about carriage rights and retransmission consent, possible changes in TV market boundaries, and changes in the rights of satellite carriers to import distant signals.
- The FCC’s localism proceeding, which could impose new obligations on broadcasters at a time when broadcast competition has never been so intense – when the marketplace should dictate how broadcasters best serve their communities
- Potential Congressional effort to bring back the Fairness Doctrine in some form or another
- A number of FCC proceedings that could affect new methods of advertising meant to combat technological changes – like embedded advertising and product placement that are meant to partially overcome the effects of DVRs.
- Congressional attempts to regulate advertising and programing – including potential efforts to restrict prescription drug ads, ED treatments, violent programming and programming that promotes unhealthy foods
- FCC attempts to reign in technical changes in FM stations to allow them to take steps to increase power and to move into larger markets
- Congressional moves to remove restrictions on LPFM stations on channels that are third-adjacent to full power facilities – and to potentially give these new stations rights to replace existing FM translators
The departure of David Rehr does not mean that the NAB will not be dealing with these issues. Much will depend on what other changes occur in the Association as a result of his departure, and the degree to which the change at the top will distract the remainder of the staff when there are so many other pressing issues that need their focus. The NAB’s Legal team dealing with FCC issues is experienced, and many members were there before Rehr started in his position, and they are likely to remain in place dealing with the fires burning at the FCC. The Government Relations staff, dealing with Congress, includes several newer recruits, but they are professionals who can hopefully mind the store on the Hill and address the issues while the NAB leadership transition is under way.
And what will a new leader for the NAB need to bring to his or her position? They will need to remind Washington of the continuing importance of broadcasters to the communities that they serve. They will need to convince Washington to treat broadcasters like a grown-up medium entitled to its full First Amendment rights to exercise its own journalistic judgment on how to best to serve the public interest – judgment derived from broadcaster’s own experience in their communities and from marketplace realities, not by dictates from Washington. They will need to be able to remind the music industry that musicians were and are begging radio stations for the airplay of their music. Washington needs to be reminded of the amazing broadcast service that has grown up in this country, that serves almost every corner of the country with radio and television service, which cannot be allowed to be nitpicked by needless regulation at a time that the industry is facing the biggest competitive challenges that it has ever faced. Let’s hope that the new head of the NAB can sufficient convey to Washington the magic of radio and TV – magic that cause these media to still be the most used media in the country – essential to most people in their day-to-day lives – so that legislators remember just how important the medium is.